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[Page 331]

Rabbi Pesach Pruskin of Blessed Memory and His Yeshiva

by I. Vishengrad

The Yeshiva of R' Pesach Pruskin in Kobrin was an important educational Torah institute. R' Pesach, a native of Kobrin, came back to his town after many travels and immediately started taking care of establishing a Yeshiva in town.

In Kobrin he found the soil ready for it because the war years stopped the movement of the yeshivas in Russia and the town accepted him with open arms. The synagogue Chaye Adam was put at his disposal for the great yeshiva and the synagogue of the Chassidim of Kobrin for a small yeshiva. A committee was established to work for this project.

After a short while there appeared youngsters from all parts of Poland, many of whom later married women from the daughters of the town and stayed as its permanent residents. Also, our own youngsters enjoyed this institution and instead of traveling great distances many of them settled in this place. Part of the town's youngsters still continued to travel to other yeshivas, following the saying, “Travel to a place of Torah”. The budget of the yeshiva youngsters was assured ahead of time. A small part of it was arranged in “Achilat Yamim” which means that on the seventh day of the week, each day they ate at the table of another homeowner. Some of those youngsters received a meager salary to sustain themselves (with the help of their parents). The Rabbi used to “tell” the lesson during the hours of the evening. Entry was free and many of the citizens of our town came to the yeshiva during the lesson to be a free listener. And even many who distanced themselves from the life of the Torah came to remember their past or came to look for the “Matmid” of Bialik and to absorb spirituality for a few hours. Over the yeshiva youngsters there was a strict supervisor who followed their comings and goings in the yeshiva and outside. A special hour was devoted to preaching morals between nine and ten in the evening, when the youngsters thought of repenting in the books about morality and their cries reached heaven. The youngsters in their innocence thought that there were no greater sinners than themselves. They appeared in every Zionist assembly and in the name of the Torah always disturbed, and many of the town's residents became their opponents.

After the death of the old Rabbi, Rabbi Pesach Pruskin was elected by the majority of the citizens of the town to be the town's Rabbi. He had a special suggestive power to win over the heart of the crowd in his excited sermons.

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After R' Pesach was elected to be the Rabbi, there was established a committee to build the house for the Rabbi. In Kobriner Street there stood a building which was called “guest house”. They enthusiastically approached the house. Many working people from different occupations contributed work days without getting paid. The coachman transported the materials without pay. Money for acquiring the materials was collected in a short time. All were busy in this holy work and so after a short while the building was completed. Then started a big argument in town between Rabbi Pruskin and the people of R' Michael. The side of Rabbi Pruskin was interested in taking over the existing institutions and gaining control over them. The war went on for several years and divided the town into two.

Rabbi Pruskin left the business of his yeshiva to go to America, but his people continued to act in his absence. They were interested in gaining for him the recognition of the Polish authorities who would appoint him also as the rabbi that is recognized by the government. I remember the day of the national Polish Holiday, the 3rd of May, when Rabbi Michael delivered the customary sermon on current events in Polish. In the great synagogue appeared Rabbi Pruskin with his men. Before Rabbi Michael finished his speech he took the podium and started speaking in Yiddish, but the representatives of the government left the synagogue before that happened.

Over time the strife settled down. Each Rabbi governed his “side.” Then Rabbi Pruskin became ill. Family problems influenced him. For several years he suffered from a disease from which he did not recover. His son-in-law and his son continued the yeshiva.

The enthusiasm of the citizens also dissipated. The yeshiva was dependent on a budget from the outside. Only several youngsters continued their studies. Then came years of turmoil and the end of the yeshiva and its glory. (I. Vishengrad).

Rabbi Pesach Pruskin, of Blessed Memory

by M. Tzinovitz

Rabbi Pesach Pruskin was a self-appointed ruler. His greatness in Talmud he achieved only because of his dedication and his terrific energy. He was a native of Kobrin. During his youth he stayed around the yeshivas in Lita and as a supervisor in the yeshiva of Slutzk by the Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer. Lo and behold, several years later he had shown himself to be qualified to teach Torah by giving lessons in the Gemara and the interpretations and lessons by the method of “understanding” according to the version of Lita of Rabbi Chaim Halevi Solovieitshick. He was even more talented in managing the yeshiva from the organizational financial point of view.

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He became the head of the yeshiva in Shaklov and succeeded in his lessons. Young forces came in great number to him since they found in him a good instructor for the Talmud fitting to develop their young talents. His lessons were not difficult. He did not approach a whole question at one time but took some beginning issue that was hard to understand, dissected and explained it. For a harder to understand dispute of the Rambam or Rabad he explained it and made it clear before the audience of his listeners in wonderful likeness and this aroused in them clear and adequate understanding.

In his yeshiva in Shaklov he was helped a lot by the rabbi of that congregation, R' Meir Shwartz. Thanks to him, that local and old yeshiva that came down from its days of glory when the other yeshivas developed in Lita and Zamut nevertheless began to take its important place even in the farthest end of white Russia. After a while, before the beginning of the First World War, he was expected to be the head of the Rabbinic Court in Amtzislav. There he also directed a great yeshiva as the political regime and the spiritual regime changed.

When the town of his congregation remained in the hands of the Soviets, Rabbi Pesach Pruskin found it necessary to come back to his native town of Kobrin that already belonged then to Poland. In the year 1923 he established here a great yeshiva. They left him this valley to be active in because until then the best of the young Torah students in Kobrin had to travel to the towns of Lita and now there was established here a high yeshiva according to the characteristic shape of yeshivas, establishing the study of morals, because Rabbi Pesach Pruskin himself identified with that movement, in which he had taught for some time in the famous Talmud Torah in Kalm. The yeshiva in Kobrin concentrated in it some very talented young people from other yeshivas. Among them were also people from Kobrin who were graduates from the small local yeshiva where the famous rabbi and Talmudic scholar, R' Mordechai Shimon, was teaching. He was a graduate of the yeshiva in Volozin.

Upon the death of Rabbi David Greenberg, the head of the Rabbinic Court, the Jews of Kobrin and representatives of various associations, circles, and synagogues selected Rabbi Pesach Pruskin to be the head of the Rabbinic Court, as one who continues the tradition of the previous Kobrin Rabbinate. Rabbi Pesach knew how to attract to himself the wider circles of Kobrin by his excellent, sermons. He had a mouth that produced pearls. The sermon had a good shape, built with good taste, and also had a lofty content. He knew to explain lofty ideas and ethics and religious investigation in a popular way.

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This writer, who studied by himself about half a year in the yeshiva in Kobrin (in the summer of 1.924), still remembers the sermon that Rabbi Pesach gave in the great synagogue in Kobrin after he received the Rabbinic appointment signed by the majority of the people in Kobrin. He remembers the great excitement of the rabbi when he mentioned the verse from the book of psalms, “The stone which the builders refused has become the chief cornerstone,” how it is that a son of an unknown family and not famous in its time in Kobrin succeeded in becoming its spiritual leader.

Also, the writer remembers his sermon and the awakening words of R' Pesach in the month of Elul and during the high holidays. Almost all the people of the town, even those who were secular among them, came streaming to listen to those sermons. During the same year his admirers, those who appreciated R' Pesach, built the house of the Rabbi near the synagogue Chaye Adam where the yeshiva students were studying and there was a big celebration when the house was dedicated. Because of these sermons R' Pesach became very beloved by the masses.

In 1928 when there were for the first time elections to the religious congregations held by the Polish Government almost in all the border towns, the victory went to the block lead by Rabbi Pesach, which represented various circles, among them the Chassidim, the representatives of the synagogue, the artisans, etc. He was elected to be the official head of the Rabbinic Court of the congregation and he also took over the previous authority given to R' Michael Shmoish as the Rabbi appointed by the government.

Of course all this caused a worsening of relations between these two sides. On the side of Rabbi Michael stood the old aristocracy, part of the home owners and the Zionists. This circle centered especially around the great synagogue where Rabbi Michael had his regular place for prayer and studying the Torah.

On the side of Rabbi Pesach was also the teacher Rabbi Noach Vineberg. In the year 1930 when his yeshiva in Kobrin was put in a difficult financial situation, Rabbi Pesach traveled to America to start a financial campaign to benefit the yeshiva. He received there a wonderful reception in the circles of the famous rabbis and thousands of people came to hear his wise and excellent sermons. He was honored to be the guest of honor in the Yeshivas of Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan in New York and to speak there before the older yeshiva students an excellent lesson in the Talmud.

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The yeshiva in Kobrin had about eighty students during its years of existence (1923-1939) and it concentrated in it some excellent Torah scholars, the great majority of them from other places, having come to Kobrin for a certain period. There were even famous yeshiva students from Mir and Radin, Slavodka, Brisk D'Lita and similar places that came and made a place for their Torah and found here a comfortable environment for their studies.

A great help to the character of the yeshiva according to the other ethical yeshivas was given by the superintendent and the spiritual instructor of this yeshiva, Rabbi Joseph Leib Nevdik. From among the homeowners who concentrated around the yeshiva should be mentioned the local physician, Mr. Wiseman, who was among the regulars in praying in the minyan.

Also, we should mention the other head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Shlomo Matot. As the head of the Rabbinic college, Rabbi Pesach Pruskin influenced greatly the direction of the yeshiva and aside from his regular lessons in the yeshiva his door was open to every yeshiva student to discuss matters of Torah, to instruct, and to give individual treatment in the understanding of the Talmud.

We should also mention where the yeshiva was housed, the synagogue Chaye Adam. Where the studies took place was the greatest Talmudic library of all the synagogues in town, even larger than the Ratner synagogue's. And it had hundreds of books that were of great help to the students of the yeshiva who had interest in those books.

We should also mention the sexton of that synagogue, the old Rabbi R' Yehuda, who treated with fatherly feeling and with dedication the yeshiva student. He told various stories about the greats of Kobrin from the past that he had known face to face. He was familiar with their comings and goings and their study of the Torah.

Rabbi Pesach Pruskin died in Kobrin at the beginning of the year 1940 during the Soviet regime, when the end of Jewish Kobrin had already begun. Two of his sons should be mentioned, R' Natan Netta and R' Leib. R' Natan Netta was a righteous person, great in the Torah, who died before his father in Kobrin. R' Leib became the son-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Rosenstein, who was the spiritual superintendent in the yeshiva of Lomza. Only the youngest son survived and remained alive and is now in New York with other refugees of Mir Yeshiva.

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Rabbi Michael Shmoish, of Blessed Memory

by M. Tzinovitz

Rabbi Michael Shmoish was born in a small town in the area of Brisk to a Hassid from Kobrin. He married the daughter of the rabbi in the congregation of Mosh near Baranovitch, of the Slonim Chassidim. He came in 1905 to Kobrin and became a rabbinic judge in the small synagogue in the Brisker Street. He was supported by the Chassidim of Kobrin and the Chassidim of Slonim at the same time. During the high holidays he would pray in the synagogue of the Chassidim of Kobrin and was among the company of Rabbi David, son of Rabbi Noach Naftali.

With the beginning of the German occupation, Rabbi Michael succeeded in standing out in one. of the first assemblies as a community worker of the first degree, as a clever and excellent lobbyist. He was helped by the young yeshiva student Moshe Gvietzman in the matter of helping the many poor in town. Avraham Levits was his translator and his advisor before the German authorities. The Germans recognized him not only as a Rabbi and a teacher in the congregation but also as a Rabbi recognized by the authorities, by the government. All the monies from the “EZRA” [aid society] in Germany and then later from the relief in America came to his address. He knew how to manage the congregation with taste and with knowledge and with clean hands. At the same time there were many refugees from Brisk in Kobrin and among them impressive looking people. They saw him also as their most fitting representative.

It should be remembered to his credit that he was involved in establishing the excellent religious school “Tvuna” for young yeshiva students who remained in town, like Moshe Gvietzman and Gedalyahu Alon (Roguznitzky). It was an institution with distinct national and religious character.

R' Michael was more inclined to the Mizrachi and signed the bulletins or the leaflets of the Jewish National Fund in Keren Hayesod, but because of local conditions he did not, in the open, join the religious Zionists.

Of course he could not satisfy all the “receivers” in Kobrin. Some of them suspected him and gossiped that he did not distribute the charity money appropriately and later they took revenge on him. When the former head of Rabbinic Court, Rabbi David Greenberg, died, they went to the other side, to the party of Rabbi Pesach Pruskin.

R' Michael educated his sons to Torah and to a sense of purpose in life and one of them studied in the Mir Yeshiva. His son-in-law, a famous scholar, Rabbi Kopel Kahana, who was a graduate of the Yeshiva Beit Yitzchak, was the head of the Rabbinic Court in Yalovitch. He was rescued by accident from the Nazis because at the time he was in England and now he is serving as professor in one of the universities of that country.

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The Life and Work of Rabbi Michael, of Blessed Memory

by I. Vishengrad

Of medium height, thin, clever and with serious eyes staring from his pale face, of few words, creating no noise around himself, modest, he spread holy glory everywhere he appeared. An imposing figure who spelled honor and glory to someone who is the son of the covenant and someone who is not the son of the covenant. He was firm in his views but still listened to others with humility and honesty.

Only the few who stood in his circle and operated with him and followed his deeds closely could appreciate the greatness of the man and his activity. It is impossible for this writer to deliver the complete life details that deserve a special book to the memory of the distinguished Rabbi that our town was honored to have. But I will deliver some details that I received from the brother of the deceased and some memories that were imbedded in me when I was still a youth and are worth putting on paper.

The Rabbi was born in the town of Visoko-D'Lita to his poor parents R' Shmuel Meir (a native of Kobrin) and to his mother Elka, of blessed memory, in the year 1884. According to the spirit of the time, he received his education in the cheder and then he transferred to a yeshiva and excelled in his sharpness and his knowledge in his studies. Before he reached the age of twenty he already had in his hands a teaching permit from the great rabbis of the time, the Rabbi of Lomza, of blessed memory, and from R' Chaim Solovietshick, of blessed memory, from Brisk D'Lita, who was very strict in these matters and would not give “ordination” until he examined the candidate and his studies.

In the year 1905-6 he married the daughter of the rabbi of Mamosh and became himself a teacher or a rabbi in Kobrin. Very quickly the rabbi became famous in his cleverness and everything from small to large was brought to him.

In 1914, when the First World War broke and many refugees came to Kobrin because the Russians evacuated Brisk and the surroundings, the Rabbi immersed himself completely in taking care of the refugees, in housing them and feeding them. Our town was never known for its richness and with the refugees its population almost doubled.

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Still the rabbi took care of the minimal necessary demands of those refugees. To many of the refugees, Kobrin was the closest station on their way to more distant places because they had nothing and they were very poor. But the committee that was established made all the efforts to lighten the suffering of the refugees who actually knew only one address, the one of “R' Michael” (as he was called for short). The Rabbi gave his body and soul to this project.

The German authority in town quickly recognized his honesty and gave him wide authority to manage the project of helping the refugees and the town's poor. Of course there were also cases of price gouging and of taking food outside of the town boundaries and then he was forced to use the only weapon that he had in his hand and that was to declare the profiteers as ostracized, (and by the way we should mention that the cases of profiteering were few).

Although he had in hand the keys to the flour, the treasury from which there would be given little notes to the hungry to get free bread, in his own home there was misery and poverty and with my own ears I heard one of the refugee women tell her friend out of jealousy that when she came to get the note for the bread in his house (which was also his office) she found R' Michael sitting over a plate of radish and eating. She said the radish was as white as snow, at the time when such delicacies were forbidden to him for health reasons. And often I found his son, who was a classmate in school, literally hungry for bread.

His organizational powers were amazing. The Rabbi took upon himself this whole weight without using any clerks and secretaries as was the custom.

Among his important activities were organizing a school for boys by the name of “Tvuna,” which was the only cultural institution with a bent for religious nationalism. And many of the youth of the town would visit it and he was its director and he would find time to come and visit it and examine the students. At the end of the war when help started coming from America from the “relief,” the “Joint” opened a branch for aid in our town, one of R' Michael's feeding houses where the children of the town received nutritious meals, a Jewish town hospital and a committee to distribute clothes to the poor of the town, etc.

R' Michael bought then the buildings of the barracks of Mr. Margalit which stood at the end of the street Traguta and there were housed all the institutions of the town. The house became “a spiritual and philanthropic center”, such as the orphanage, the workshops of ORT to teach various occupations, carpentry for boys and sewing for girls, the school Tvuna, the school for girls in the Yiddish language that later became Tzisha and more recently also the Hebrew school Tarbut. It is hard to understand how R' Michael had all that energy to head all those institutions and to work literally in all the daily activities.

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It is known that immediately after announcing the Torah verdict he would quickly leave his room so as not to be present and not to see which side was paying the honorarium because the two quarreling sides decided in dispute would compete in front of the Rabbi to show who gave more and who gave less.

In the selling of Chametz on the eve of Pesach he did not want to take part in any way at all, but his many friends found a trick for that too. They put instead his young son and he would arrange the selling of the Chametz and indeed there was a great sum that was collected from that “transaction”. Those who were familiar with numbers figured and found that if he himself arranged that sale he would be the person with the largest income in town. It is told that in the days of the “Joint” in town, his old mother came to visit him and found that in the house there were no sheets and pillow cases. People literally slept without them. And his mother addressed him angrily and said, “How could it be that the man who has in his hand the keys for all the clothing and such would not give to the poor of his own house as he gives to the other poor people in town.” And his answer was that if he was like the other poor people in town they would not entrust to him the keys to the warehouses. His relatives were always angry at him that he did not give them special treatment over others.

After the occupation of the town by the Poles, he had to gain the trust of the local authorities. He was successful in that and his influence over them was great. He was appointed by them as the official rabbi and in his hands were entrusted the books of birth registration that he saved from destruction during the years of the war. He had a place of honor in the circles of government and they valued his opinion.

R' Michael was a Zionist and an enthusiastic one. His name always appeared in bulletins issued by the centers of the Jewish National Fund and the Mizrachi, bulletins that called for the liberation of the land of Israel and people. It is known that many of the rabbis at that time were making a great sacrifice with such involvement, endangering their rabbinic careers.

A special story is his sacrificing his soul for the soul of any Jew. I heard from R' Levits, of blessed memory, how he saved a Jew from the Kobrin area without even knowing him. After the occupation of the city by the Poles, he was told that the military authorities were leading a Jew to the gallows, accusing him of spying.

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On a late night our rabbi aroused his non-Jewish friends among the Poles and he vouched for him that if the person who was accused were really proven guilty he would offer his head instead. This deed influenced the military people and the man was released.

Many of us remember the case of the youngster who was blind in one eye and who was accused of killing a village woman outside of town after she received some money from America in the mail. (The youth was serving as a translator in the post office of the peasants who paid him). R' Michael knew what could happen.

kob340.jpg [25 KB] - Rabbi Michael z”l
Rabbi Michael
of Blessed Memory
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He endangered himself and took upon himself all the burden and the expenses of the defense until the person was left free and the town breathed a sigh of relief. In every time of trouble and when regimes changed during the years of the war he stood on guard and saved anything that could be saved.

Years of crisis came upon him when Rabbi Pesach Pruskin, of blessed memory, was crowned as the Rabbi of the town after the passing away of the old rabbi from Pinsk. He captured the hearts of the masses with his enthusiastic sermons, but the friends of R' Michael did not leave him and on the same week he was presented with a certificate of the rabbinate which was signed by the important people in town and the progressive intelligentsia, especially from the Zionist circles. Of course after that there was strife in town. The two rabbis stood away from the whole issue. But the “sides” (as they were called in town) were very involved. Echoes of the dissent reached the “Landsmanshaft” of the Kobrin people in America and libelous writings flew back and forth. As time passed this dissent died down. Many of Rabbi Pruskin's side came back to Rabbi Michael feeling sorry for the hurt that they had caused him.

In addition to this he also took care of economic matters. As is known he was the one who established a branch of the cooperative Jewish bank that was established then in every town. This Jewish bank was the first that was established after the war in our town and with management by the Rabbi it progressed and became one of the most established in town. He managed the bank as a director without getting any rewards and one of the head managers who came from Warsaw for an inspection was very surprised when he visited the rabbi at home and found that his daughter was washing the floors. He thought that she was a servant. He wanted to give her some tip (as was the custom abroad) and how surprised was he to hear that the servant was the daughter of the rabbi-director.

So the Rabbi lived a modest life. He needed very little. He was weak in his body but a hero in the spirit. He made a living from yeast and Sabbath candles that his friends would sell every week and would bring the profits to the Rabbi's wife. In the very strict circles he was famous in the honesty and purity of his heart. He married his daughters, the older one to Rabbi Kopel Kahana who today serves as a lecturer in the law school at the University of Cambridge, and the younger one to a young man who served as the Rabbi in Mezrich. And when it seemed that he came to a place of rest and security there came the wrath upon him of the wicked one and the Rabbi, who could have escaped the bad times, fell together with the people of his town and he did not leave them until the last moment. What a pity for those who are gone and cannot be forgotten.

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